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An Immigrant's Art : The surrealistic works of a Leningrad artist keep cropping up in galleries throughout the county.

March 19, 1992|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Vladislav Sukhorukov is no stranger to anyone who has paid attention to art in Ventura County in the past year. The Russian artist's work, often surreal and yet pointedly political and/or religious in message, keeps popping up in all the right places.

In July, a one-man show of his work went up at the Momentum Gallery. Since then, his paintings have been seen at the Pacific Rim Gallery, at the recent Assembly of the Arts exhibition at the Ventura County Museum of History and Art, and will soon be coming to another art space near you.

On Friday, Ventura County National Bank will hold a reception from 5 to 7 p.m. to launch an exhibit of Sukhorukov's work. And in August, the Carnegie Museum in Oxnard will show his work.

Besides the obvious skill and concentrated energy inherent in his paintings, they jump out by virtue of their distinction from other Ventura or Ojai-based art.

Recently, Sukhorukov's paintings could be seen energizing the otherwise officious walls of the Ventura County Government Center lobby. These are not pretty pictures to coat the workaday experience in the building.

Ironies bubble up when a polemical artist such as Sukhorukov is shown in an official space where the wheels of government are churning nearby.

"Short Circuit" refers to the perils of dehumanization with any system that, to quote an accompanying statement, "needs people who are willing to be robots, to live on unconscious routine, to be uncreative and unthinking. . . ."

Two men in suits walked briskly by the paintings, shaking their heads slightly.

Said one: "These things are so bizarre."

The other: "Very strange."

Also strange is Sukhorukov's personal saga: His homeland has done a political about-face, he continues to struggle to secure a working visa that would allow him to stay in the United States and a busy schedule has resulted in more than 100 paintings in his thus-far two-year stay.

Now the trail to Sukhorukov, who Americans call Slava, leads you to Ojai, to an idyllic plot of land. There, living with Bill and Paula Spellman, he has found a sympathetic home abroad and a fruitful working environment.

The fateful meeting came when the Spellmans, longstanding aficionados of Russian culture, took a trip there as citizen diplomats. Paula asked to be led to some of the indigenous artists.

"When I walked into Slava's apartment, it just literally threw me against the wall," she said. "I thought, 'The world needs to see this man's message.' "

Paula Spellman tried in vain to go through the right channels to bring the artist to the United States. But luck fell in Sukhorukov's lap when the producer of a National Geographic special featuring Sukhorukov pulled strings with the American consulate to grant him a six-month visa.

On two days notice, he left Leningrad and landed in New York with $50 in his pocket.

"Slava had no English other than 'fantastic' and 'no problem,' " Paula said. "That got him to America." Now he speaks with broken English and Russian bravura, with dramatic emphasis underscoring his ideas.

"My tongue and my language have conflict," Sukhorukov said.

Sukhorukov's homeland has had a benevolent upheaval during his absence, but he is only guardedly optimistic.

"Forty years ago, Yeltsin and company practiced one idea." He slapped his hand and pointed to the tape recorder on the table. "Suddenly, you push a button and it plays different music. A big political game.

"I'm very happy about one idea: Now the whole planet understands that you can't separate problems. One country's problem is a problem for the whole planet."

While he was studying art, Sukhorukov found exposure to Western ideas limited by a harsh filter of government approval.

"The Hermitage collection is wonderful. And I saw many art books, but art books about classical art. The first time I saw real Western avant-garde art was Salvador Dali. That was in 1968, before I went into the army.

"It was a very interesting situation. My friend had me come over to his apartment. It was very secret. There was no light and people were smoking cigarettes and drinking a lot of wine. I saw slides of Dali. Whew!"

Judging from the potent strain of surrealism in his painting, the "whew" factor never quite subsided.

In addition to his contemporary work, Sukhorukov regularly works on time-honored religious icon paintings--many of which were seen at the Momentum show.

"Icons give to me a real chance to think about God and the future," he said. "These other paintings are about me, too, but about my regular life, about my political position, about my erotic position, about my philosophical position and fantasy position. But, for me, religion and freedom are two different ideas."

For the moment, Sukhorukov wants to continue life in the United States and polish his English. "Maybe American government will give me a chance to stay in America. I don't want a break now. It's important for my language and for other reasons.

"But who knows about the future? Maybe I'll live in America. Maybe I'll live in Africa," he said, laughing. "I don't like Africa, but who knows?"

UP CLOSE/ SLAVA SUKHORUKOV

On coming to America: "For Soviet people, America is the dream country. It's very big and new in terms of history. It has fantastic economics and very nice politics--freedom."

On the motives for his paintings: "I like to make paintings about my feelings, about the erotic, about meditation. This is my style, my art. Before America and now, I have feelings about political and religious problems."

On his feelings about the new Russia: "It's a fantastic time for all countries. Maybe this last five years has been a fantastic preview of what's to come. I'm optimistic about Russia 50 years from now. I'm very unhappy about tomorrow. Tomorrow, Russia is going to have a very bad time."

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